Original Article

International Journal of Colorectal Disease

, Volume 20, Issue 2, pp 137-146

First online:

Molecular detection of clinical colorectal cancer metastasis: how should multiple markers be put to use?

  • Michael ConzelmannAffiliated withUnit of Toxicology and Chemotherapy, German Cancer Research Center
  • , Ulrich LinnemannAffiliated withDepartment of Visceral, Thoracic and Endocrine Surgery, Municipal Hospital Nürnberg Nord
  • , Martin R. BergerAffiliated withUnit of Toxicology and Chemotherapy, German Cancer Research Center Email author 

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Background and aims

Up to 45% of colorectal cancer (CRC) patients will develop local recurrence or metastasis following curative resection. The latter is due to cells shed from the primary carcinoma prior to or during surgery. The aim of this study was to contribute toward a “rational”-approach for detecting these disseminated tumor cells (DTC) using a combination of independent markers and detection methods.


Liver, lymph node, and bone marrow samples from 246 CRC patients were screened for DTC using three markers: mutated K-ras was detected by polymerase chain reaction-restriction fragment length polymorphism (PCR-RFLP), and cytokeratin 20 (CK20) and guanylylcyclase C (GCC), indicating circulating epithelial cells, were tracked by nested reverse-transcription (RT) PCR.


The rate of positive findings of the individual markers (CK20: 88%; GCC: 88%; K-ras: 67%) and their combinations (88–50%) was significantly higher in biopsies from liver metastases than in liver samples from patients without evident distant metastasis (M0; p<0.03). The detection rate of individual markers (except GCC) was also significantly elevated in inconspicuous liver tissue adjacent to metastasis compared with specimens from M0 patients. When using the concomitant detection of all three markers as criterion for DTC in the liver of M0 patients, however, no patient was DTC-positive. Therefore, the concomitant presence of the two CEC markers (CK20 plus GCC) and/or the presence of mutated K-ras were preferred for a combined evaluation, which resulted in a 24% detection rate for biopsies from both liver lobes. This translates into 39% of M0 patients with at least one positive liver biopsy.


Our results suggest that the concomitant detection of CK20 plus GCC and/or the presence of mutated K-ras are a rational approach for tracking CEC/DTC in CRC patients.


Cytokeratin 20 Guanylylcyclase C K-ras Disseminated tumor cells Circulating epithelial cells